Think smart: A look at the very latest in Smart Home technology
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How far would you be prepared to let technology run your home? Richard Burton looks at the reality behind Smart Homes.
Ten years ago I sat in a New York hotel room waiting to interview one of those techno-wizz types from a Soho start-up, ordering food via virtual link to the kitchen and telling the blinds to go down when the sun shone on my laptop screen. A few days ago I related that to some of the world’s leading minds for an article on Smart Homes for an interiors magazine.
I could have been telling them I’ve just discovered colour TV as they painted a picture not a million miles away from the sort of stuff I used to watch as a child on the Jetsons.
Walls that glow to light up rooms, face recognition front door locks, virtual wardrobes that use our diaries and weather forecasts to work out - and tell us - what to tell us to wear and ovens that use 3D printing technology to create our food.
All of which will be supported, if we’re really thinking Jetsons, by the inevitable robot which will prepare it, serve it, and probably take care of the dishes too.
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Some of it may sound like fantasy but some of it’s here now. And in an area as fast moving as this, my experts were united on one thought: in this world, ideas predicted for next year, often become reality next month.
And that’s why, if we have the right sort of fridge, we can text it from the office to ask if we need to pick up more milk, tell the oven when to go on and expect the heating to be at the right level by the time we arrive home.
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Some of it is progress, some of it indulgence but the fact is, the smart home is here and getting smarter, thanks to the advancement of a range of innovations known variously as Voice First Technology, Artificial Intelligence, Augmented and Virtual Reality and that wonderfully all-embracing term, the Internet of Things.
The global market will grow by almost 27 per cent per cent this year, according to so-called device trackers at the International Data Corporation who insist it’s a trend that’s set to continue for the next three.
A lot of this has been a long time coming much came of age last year as the market was seemingly flooded with labour-saving products of all types.
“Twenty-eighteen was all about getting products into consumers’ homes,” according to Jitesh Ubrani research manager for IDC Mobile Device Trackers, citing the likes of Amazon and Google who excelled through “low-cost smart speakers and multiple bundles across device categories.
“However, 2019 will be more about tying the various devices together to form a more cohesive experience, and more importantly, layering in additional services.”
So what does that mean for us? Putting aside for a moment, the ultra-smart new builds, all that’s needed to turn a dumb house into a smart one is a strong wi-fi connection, a smartphone, tablet or keypad to drive it and a browse through a range of “solutions”, such as Google Home, Amazon Echo and Philips Hue.
Some retailers insist it’s OK to start small. Many homeowners aren’t even thinking Smart Homes when they make their first purchase; be it a dimmer, a thermostat, speaker or security camera. That often comes later when they get used to an element of technology and add other devices over time.
That does come with snags, according to Sam Howarth managing director of Potters Bar-based smart home specialists Limelight Automation.
“Over-the-counter products may suit a flat or three-bed semi but their availability can create confusion,” he told me. “While there are positive solutions in all areas of technology these days, the danger is that someone can build quite a large property and end up putting in off-the-shelf products and wondering why they don’t all work.”
His company travels all over Hertfordshire and North London working for well-heeled individuals and high-end developers on soup-to-nuts installations like the £150,000 management system in one Bushey home which needed a commercial-style control unit to integrate literally with everything in the house. This included door entry, centralised lighting, underfloor heating, ceiling audio in every room and even an eight-seater cinema with a Dolby Atmos sound system and a six-metre wide screen.
The sound was whacked out through 32 speakers and the family sat in imported leather chairs with motion sensors that react in time with the action on the screen.
Another project involved a Void Acoustics sound system – the sort used in clubs in Ibiza – to provide music to an outdoor swimming pool.
But for mere mortals, can we do it ourselves? “The tech-literate, the Millennials who have grown up with iPhone in their hands and know all about connectivity can, but it’s the older ones who have the money who tend to go for this and they need someone to do it for them.
“The market has moved insanely fast. A few years ago the market was essentially high-end but with not always the most reliable equipment. It’s since moved to a much wider market with greater reliability across all disciplines.
“Amazon Alexa, for example, has been amazing. You can integrate it with higher-end products or get it to control a couple of Hue bulbs in a small flat.”
So what else is there to look forward to?
Wi-Fi controlled ovens have been in High Street stores for some time. The Samsung NV73J9, for example, lets you control cooking temperatures and timings from your smartphone or tablet.
Then there’s smart glass, which can do away with the need for curtains or blinds, dimming itself when night falls and returning to clear mode in the morning. Some versions are even intelligent enough to detect daylight changes.
And the fridges that know what’s in them? Panasonic have one that brings it to you; thanks to sensors that allow it to navigate, it responds to voice commands and slips out from under the worktop.
And it doesn’t end there. Furniture is getting clever too. The sleep technology company, Bryte, have designed a robotic bed that automatically adjusts the heat, gives different levels of support for different parts of the body and can even rock a person to sleep.
It works by sensing the body’s temperature, calculating weight distribution and constantly adjusting its settings throughout the night; small changes that can make the difference to how quickly the person falls asleep and stays asleep.
Other industries have joined the quest to find furniture’s next big thing. Car-maker Ford, for example, has produced a bed which keeps couples on their own side by noting when a “selfish sleeper” has rolled over - and puts them back in their place.
It uses the same technology that drives its Lane-Keeping Aid, which monitors road markings in front of it and “nudges” the steering wheel in the opposite direction if it senses the driver is veering too close the wrong way.
Smart in Herts
Radlett: The client told Limelight Automation he wanted a modern entertainment system that let him “watch football and listen to Bruce Springsteen in all rooms”. The result was a Control4 home automation system and a cinema equipped with a giant Samsung LED television, incorporating Sky, Blu-ray, Kaleidescape, Apple TV, and Artcoustic Spitfire and Sonance Visual Performance speakers.
Elstree: Every light fixture was replaced with energy-saving Aurora LED fittings, and every room was equipped with Sonos multi-room audio and high-definition HDMI distribution for each TV in this Swiss-chalet-style home. Security involved a simple alarm system, coupled with high-definition 1080p CCTV.